It is utterly classic for me to get extraordinarily enthusiastic about a project and then, slowly and inevitably, get dragged down in to the muck and the mire of the details of getting it going. For instance: as a child, I spent hours sculpting the characters for the stories I was of course going to write — excel spreadsheets with the color of hair, shape of forehead, style of dress, and on and on and on. The stories themselves never got all that far off the ground.
So, whatever that says about me, what I need to say now is: that’s ending! With this project, at least. I’ve been slowly building a spreadsheet of interesting women of history. It’s color-coded and everything. And it’s gotten massive and unwieldy and unapproachable — so here’s what we’re going to do. I’ve found a random number generator. And I (and any other PMagger that would like to get on board) am going to write about one of these women as often as possible — adding to our previous posts on Badass Ladies of History!
See how daunting this is?
One note about my collection of these remarkable women: they are as varied as I can possibly make them. I only read in English, so of course that’s a limitation — and my personal interest is in the twentieth century United States, so there’s another limitation (if you want to put it that way). But I am trying to include as many women of color as possible, and I’m using “women” broadly defined, here — anyone who identifies or at some point identified on the lady-ish side of the spectrum is down with me. (This may be tricky, in the long run, but I’m game if you all are.) I used a number generator to pick the first person to write about, but I am open to suggestions for a different method.
First up, Belle Case La Follette!
Belle Case was born in 1859, in Wisconsin, to farmers in Juneau County. Reportedly, her parents sacrificed “everything” to send her to school and let her get the education she was so well-suited for. Belle attended the University of Wisconsin beginning in 1875. She was a member of the earliest classes of women graduating from the University of Wisconsin, which admitted women to its general classes in 1861, a full ten years after the university was founded. (Still a full one hundred years before Harvard did! Not so shabby, Wisconsin!) School was kind to Belle — she excelled, developed a passion for literature, and apparently had a social life as well, for it was there that she met her future partner, Bob La Follette. A Wisconsin history page notes that Belle was a full four years younger than Bob, but they were in the same class — and when they graduated in 1879, it was she, not he, that was at the top of the class.
The two got married not long after graduation (after Belle taught high school and Bob went to law school), and he became the district attorney — with Belle’s help, of course. She spent her time clerking for him and helping to write legal briefs. Their first child was born during this time, but Belle didn’t do the bed rest thing, it appears; she went to law school and became the first woman graduate of Wisconsin law school in 1885, only three years after giving birth. Her help for her husband’s legal practice helped him win a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and when the judge, in error, attributed the brief that Belle had written to her husband, Bob appeared to take great pride in correcting him.
In between Bob’s runs for office (both federal and state) Belle taught — physical education, lecturing on suffrage, coeducation, clothing reform, and other proto-feminist type things. She spoke, too, in favor of rights for African-American citizens, communism (though later dropped the interest, after the rise of the Soviet Union), and world disarmament, all three of which she believed to be intertwined. (Intersectionality!) She helped found the Women’s Peace Party during WWI, which still exists (under the name Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) and protested the draft and the propagandist nature of war recruitment strategies. She also promoted food and drug reform, exercise, and educational and prison reform.
Belle was also a writer and editor, and strongly advocated for anti-racist practices in her writing. She criticized Woodrow Wilson’s administration for its racial segregation (particularly its habit of firing workers of color hired under previous administrations) and took up the case of lunchroom segregation of women in D.C. Though she faced a loss in readership as well as hate mail for these stances, she went on to publish the hate mail (and supportive mail from women of color!) and spoke in front of black and white audiences on lynching, segregation, and Jim Crow voting laws.
Bob entered public life and was, at various points, a state legislator, the governor of Wisconsin, state Senator, and presidential candidate. Belle supported him through all of this, even (perhaps especially) when he was earning his nickname: “Fightin’ Bob.” Under his leadership, Wisconsin experimented with direct democracy and limiting corporate power. His faction of Republicans were known as “insurgents” for their resistance towards the party’s drift from its anti-slavery roots. His progressive causes included workers compensation, women’s suffrage, minimum wage, direct democracy, progressive taxes, reforming the primary system, and more. During this time, Wisconsin was called a “laboratory democracy” and took the lead as one of the most progressive states in the nation. His time in the Senate was more of the same, opposing involvement in World War I, protective labor laws, social security, and so on, all causes that his wife also championed.
Belle did not enjoy living in the spotlight and, though she did spend time in Washington with her husband, often preferred to stay behind in Madison and do her own work — and the practical work of day-to-day life, which often involved staving off Bob’s creditors, as he proclaimed his disinterest in “mere wealth” and worked on his progressive bona fides. She also was, of course, mothering the children that they had produced, besides working on the practicalities of a lawyer/politician’s life —responding to correspondence, stuffing envelopes, and so on. Bob considered her his benchmark and her idealism kept him fighting, as it were; she was his steadfast supporter but also the “ablest woman in the land,” according to him, and he often took his cue from her ideas.
Bob died not long after a failed run for president (though one of the best showings of a third party candidate since the Civil War, with 17% of the popular vote) and Belle continued to write and edit, as well as support their sons’ entry into politics — living to see one son become Wisconsin’s governor and another succeed his father as Senator.
At her funeral in 1931, her eulogist, Lincoln Steffens, said that she “wanted to fly. She inspired flight and she bore fliers, but she herself – Belle La Follette – walked all her life on the ground to keep the course for her fliers. That was her woman’s victory; that was a woman’s tragedy, too.” The New York Times said that she was “probably the least known yet most influential of all the American women who had to do with public affairs in this country.”
What are your thoughts on Belle Case La Follette and her family? How about this project? Anyone that you want us PMaggers to focus on next, or any particular eras?